It was a scary moment for Jerry and Tricia DeVille when their daughter was stranded in the Bighorn Mountains over Labor Day weekend.
Alissa DeVille and her boyfriend, Blake Fuhriman, set up camp near Bighorn Reservoir before climbing Black Tooth Mountain, the second-highest peak in the Bighorns at 13,000 feet.
After summiting the peak, the couple wasn’t able to make their way back down, leaving them stranded.
“We, as parents, experienced one of those scary moments that everyone hopes they never have to go through,” Tricia DeVille wrote in a letter to The Press after the horrifying event.
This isn’t a rare occurrence in the area, though.
Climbers, hikers, snowmobilers and hunters are taking to the mountains in the fall and winter in mass numbers. It’s a great way to get outside and enjoy the unique Wyoming landscape.
While autumns and winters in Sheridan can be beautifully majestic, they can also be uncertain and treacherous.
Luckily, Sheridan Area Search and Rescue has 40 members ready and eager to assist in situations similar to DeVille’s and Fuhriman’s.
Sheridan Area Search and Rescue falls under the umbrella of the Sheridan County Sheriff’s Office and Sheriff Dave Hofmeier, but it’s his lieutenants and the 40 volunteers that make the team what it is, he said.
“They get called at two o’clock in the morning, and they get up and go look for someone,” Hofmeier said of the dedication of the volunteers. “Most people get a call at two in the morning and say ‘sorry, I’m going back to sleep.’”
Lt. Mark Conrad acts as the liaison for the sheriff’s office and SASR, but also plays a huge role in joining the volunteers on search and rescue missions.
Conrad loves the outdoors, knows the mountains and has very strong snowmobile skills. He says that, paired with his general desire to help people, mirrors the traits of the 40 members of the search and rescue team.
It’s not an easy process to become a search and rescue team member, either. Volunteers most go through extensive background checks and intense training before they can hop in a truck and drive up Red Grade Road to save somebody.
That doesn’t deter people from lining up to join. Conrad said Sheridan Area Search and Rescue has a waiting list of people wanting to volunteer their time and services to help.
But as the weather changes, the search and rescue team preps for more of those 2 a.m. phone calls.
Bob Aksamit, president of Sheridan Area Search and Rescue, said the uncertainty of Wyoming weather is the biggest cause for concern when it comes to trouble on the mountains.
“A lot of it is, people don’t realize how fast things can change,” he said.
Conrad echoed Aksamit’s reasoning.
“The weather alone changes things dramatically,” he said. “Your situation might be great if it’s 75 degrees, but if it’s 10 degrees, your situation just changed. I’ve seen it snow on the Fourth of July. You’re getting sunburnt, but you wake up to 6 inches of snow.”
So what can you do to better prevent the chances of search and rescue coming to look for you?
As simple as it sounds — Conrad and Hofmeier almost laugh at the simplicity of it — they say it’s one of the most common reasons things go wrong.
“It’s a simple thing to say, but wear adequate clothing, bring adequate equipment,” Conrad said.
And don’t bite off more than you can chew.
They added that another common problem that leads to trouble is climbers, hikers and snowmobilers going beyond the boundaries of what they are actually capable of doing.
“I would say the vast majority of our searches have not been people who are lost, but people who are stranded,” Conrad said. “If it doesn’t feel right, then it probably isn’t.”
“If your gut’s telling you no, it’s too steep or it’s not set up right, don’t go, “Hofmeier added.
And if the worst case happens, and the call to search and rescue has to be made, they hope you’re prepared enough to tell somebody where you are going.
“Tell somebody at the desk at a lodge,” Aksamit said. “If we have an idea of where to start looking, it makes everything so much easier.”
Taking the advice of Sheridan Area Search and Rescue before taking an adventure might be the difference in having to appreciate their services down the road.
“They volunteer to go out, in this case, at night and climb in the mountains to help someone in need,” Tricia and Jerry DeVille said after their daughter was rescued from Black Tooth Mountain. “We had never taken this for granted, but didn’t totally appreciate what they do until now.”